Gun to my head, I might be able to say something positive about 300: Rise of an Empire. In a vacuum, I suppose I'd call its aesthetic appealing, its production value impressive, or its giant rhinos kind of cool. But these elements cannot be taken alone, embroidered on a gigantic patch of joyless pain that infests your conscious mind from its inceptive moments on.
It's not so much that the 300 sequel fails at its desired conceit — it gives you exactly what it promises: gore, swordplay, angry sex, halfwit maxims about honor and manliness and the love of the fight. It's simply that its desired conceit is dehumanizing agony. Holding too hard and too long to its mission statement to top its Zack Snyder-helmed predecessor in scope, scale, and spilled pints of blood, Noam Murro's Rise of an Empire doesn't put any energy into filtering its spectacular mayhem through whatever semblance of a humanistic touch made the first one feel like a comprehensive movie.
Now, it's been a good eight years since I've seen 300, and I can't say that I was particularly fond of it. But beneath its own eye-widening layer of violence, there was a tangible idea of who King Leonidas was, what this war meant, and why Sparta mattered. No matter how much clumsy exposition is hurled our way, all we really know here is that there are two sides and they hate each other.
When Rise of an Empire asks us to engage on a more intimate level, which it does — the personal warfare between Sullivan Stapleton (whose name, I guess, is Themistokles) and Bad Guy Captain Eva Green (a.k.a. Artemisia) is founded on the idea that she likes him, and he kind of digs her (re: angry sex), and they want to rule together, but a rose by any other name and all that — we're effectively lost. With characters who don't matter in the slightest, material like this is just filler between the practically striking battle sequences.
But when the "in-between material" is as meaningless as it is in Rise of an Empire, the battles can't function as much more than filler themselves. Filler between the opening titles and closing credits. A game of Candy Crush you play on the subway. Contemptfully insubstantial and not particularly fun, but taking place nonetheless.
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Without even a remote layer of camp — too palpably absent as Rise of an Empire splashes its screen with so much human fluid that "The End" by The Doors will start to play in your head — there's no victory in a movie like this. No characters to latch onto, no story to follow, no joy to be derived. Yes, it might be aesthetically stunning (and really, that's where the one star comes in... well, half a star for that and half for the giant rhinos), but the marvel of its look shrinks under the shadow of the painful vacancy of anything tolerable.
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A fictional fever-dream mystery crafted loosely from the notorious still-unsolved 1947 murder of wayward wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) the tale teams two rising L.A. police detectives whose bone-crunching boxing bout give them political juice—Mr. Ice cool young Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Mr. Fire hotheaded veteran Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Both men become embroiled in and obsessed with the sick horrific crime even as Dwight falls hard for Lee’s victimized world-weary live-in love Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson)—with Lee’s unspoken approval: he’s too busy spiraling downward into a psychotic fixation with solving the murder having previously lost his sister to foul play. But Dwight’s also led astray by the more carnal temptations of voracious Madeline Sprague (Hilary Swank) the daughter of a bizarre high-society family with her own shadowy connections to the Dahlia. Sordid subplots abound simmering and swirling as in death the Black Dahlia threatens to suck everyone into an ever-widening abyss. Not entirely an epic of miscasting the film nevertheless falls short finding performers to essay Ellroy’s compelling cast: Hartnett demonstrates more depth here than in most previous efforts but comes fathoms short of the necessary mix of drive and angst to suit the complex role. Although she physically conveys a maturity beyond her years Johansson shows none of the wounded wisdom of the novel’s Kay—her seductive ethereal air would with an ebony dye job have served her far better as the Dahlia herself a cipher who becomes in the eyes of those obsessed with her whatever they dream her to be. Conversely Kirshner delivers in that elusive spectral role but the been-around-the-block-one-too-many times faded glint in her eyes would have made her a much more involving Kay. Eckhart has the spit and polish of a political-minded cop down pat but lacks the self-destructive inner fire that fuels the façade. Swank is mostly delightful by degrees—many of her choices are intriguing occasionally outrageous and give her femme fatale needed dimensions but others are overindulged. There are certainly macabre grand guignol moments in the story that make it more akin to Sunset Boulevard than its more obvious comparison Ellroy’s own L.A. Confidential but De Palma—never known for his subtlety—handles them with such an overt determined campiness any wry irony is wrung from them. The result is more of a parody—indeed an unflattering caricature—than a modern commentary on classic noir style. Add in his ceaseless camera-swooping swipes from Hitchcock and his ongoing fixation with meaningless gore—ham-fisted homages and hemorrhaging hemoglobin to ape Ellroy’s alliterative gossip-rag riffs—that distract from the intensity of the source material and all that remains is a bloody shame.